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Applying to US Colleges: a Primer for American Teens

The basics may be the same today as in the past, but the process is now far more competitive.

Originally published in AFSA‘s Foreign Service Journal.

Back in the dark ages when we parents were teenagers, the college application process seemed a lot easier. You picked three schools: a “reach,” a “match” and a “safety.” You were sure to get into at least one of them, and that was the end of that. The basics may be the same today, but the process is far more competitive. In fact, a whole industry-of advice books, Web sites, prep courses and college consultants-has cropped up around the college admissions process. That’s because the percentage of young people applying to American colleges has snowballed in recent years. Consequently, it’s no longer a given that you will get into the school your parents went to, or even into the one you once would have considered a safety school.

The biggest change in the college application process, however, involves the Internet, and that’s very good news for most Americans living overseas. Not only do colleges offer Web sites where you can get information and download admissions applications, but you can also apply electronically to several colleges at once. You may find out you were accepted or rejected via e-mail, and almost all financial aid counselors prefer that you complete financial aid forms online. It’s still difficult for Foreign Service kids living abroad to visit schools, but now you can take a virtual tour instead.

Although the climate is more competitive than ever, if you’ve lived overseas, you’ve got an edge. “The advantage American kids have in living abroad is their broader perspective of the world,” says Mary Karen Vellines, senior associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “Most colleges and universities look for students who are going to bring diversity to a campus.” Students from overseas high schools are attractive to colleges “because of their international experiences,” according to Tom Smith, college counselor at the International School of Brussels. “The fact that most of our kids have moved frequently and been able to cope with change is a big plus.”

But what if you don’t have access to a college counselor, a guidance department or even, in the case of home-schoolers, a school building? Don’t worry. Applying to college with little support can be done. This article aims to make the process clearer for far-flung Foreign Service families: first with an overview of what exactly makes up a college application, and then a step-by-step preparation plan.

The Application

Your college application, when completed and ready to send (usually by a January deadline), will generally contain the following:

An application form: the Common Application (a timesaver used by a growing number of colleges), the school’s own unique application, or the Common Application plus individual school supplements. Here you will provide basic personal data, list extracurricular activities and awards, write at least one essay, and sometimes give snappy answers to quirky questions.

Your official transcript: the grades you earned for all four years of high school, with the senior spring semester grades to be sent after you graduate.

Recommendations from teachers and others who know your strengths.

Standardized test results such as SAT I and SAT II scores (these are sent to the colleges you specify through the College Board), as well as any AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate) test results, if applicable.

An application fee (usually around $50).

You or your high school guidance department will put these packages together, and at least part of the application may be sent electronically. But even with help, you will need to check the application requirements of each college you are applying to, as requirements do vary. Now, what exactly should you do throughout high school so that your college application will shine?

Freshman and Sophomore Years

Make sure you have Internet access. A home computer with Internet access will make your college search and the application process much easier.

Map your major courses for all four years of high school. This is the time to get on track with your high school courses in the sequence that you want.

Take the most challenging courses you can handle and get good grades. Your transcript is the most important part of your application.

Develop your extracurricular interests. You don’t need to have a finger in every pie, but you do need to find a few things, such as sports, the arts or volunteer work, about which you are passionate. Being a leader in a few activities counts for more than being a follower in many.

Find out about AP courses and IB programs, which generally begin in 11th grade. These programs are not for everyone, but they do strengthen your application.

Consider how you will spend your summers. Kids back home often spend at least part of the summer working, volunteering, participating in a college summer program or attending specialized camps. These are good choices for you, too, but you may have more unique opportunities in a foreign country. Also, once you’re 16, don’t forget about the summer-hire program at most embassies. Experience working in an embassy will set your application apart.

Junior Year

This is the year that counts more than any other. If your grades have been poor or mediocre up to this point, it may be too late to get into the most selective schools, but a dramatic improvement will show college admissions officers at the many other excellent colleges out there that you have grown in maturity and responsibility. If your grades are already good, this is the year to take a good look at your skills and interests so that you will be able to formulate goals based on self-knowledge.

During the Fall Semester:

Register and take the PSAT. While these scores aren’t included in your admissions application, they do qualify you for National Merit Scholarships if they’re high enough. If you have taken any SAT prep courses over the summer, you will probably want to take the SATs as soon as possible while the material is still fresh in your head. By the way, if you are disciplined enough to study just an hour or two a week with SAT prep workbooks, you don’t need to pay for expensive prep courses. “If” is the operative word here.

If you will need financial aid, start checking out possible scholarship sources, such as www.fastweb.com. Don’t forget, AAFSW and AFSA sponsor scholarships for Foreign Service children.

Start your research using books, magazines and the Internet. This is the fun part: looking for colleges where you’ll flourish. If you’re being schooled at home, or are without reliable Internet access, make sure you have a comprehensive college resource book, such as The Best 357 Colleges (Princeton Review), so that you can see at a glance what high school courses U.S. colleges require for admission.

Attend college fairs, usually hosted by international schools. Also, the Office of Overseas Schools sponsors the Overseas School Project in conjunction with the College Board, providing information and workshops at overseas posts and schools through visiting admissions deans.

Put together a filing system or notebook for your college choices. When you register on college Web sites, you will start getting materials in the mail. You will need ways to organize brochures and applications: a special bookshelf, notebook, computer database, portable filing cabinet or a combination of these.

Keep your grades up, and get tutoring in weak subjects if necessary.

During the Spring Semester:

Narrow your field of colleges. In today’s competitive climate, most students apply to six to nine colleges, spread relatively evenly among reach, match and safety schools. “I sit down with a student and we compare his grades and test scores to the average grade-point average and scores at each college he’s interested in,” says Mary Ellen Cochran, guidance counselor at the International School of Brussels. “Sometimes this is painful, if the student wants to apply to all Ivy League schools and has a C average. In that case, I urge him to add some safety schools to his list and to be more realistic.”

If your family has established residency in a home state, remember that in-state tuition is far less expensive than at private universities and colleges, and you’ll get a fine education at most public universities. Many college graduates end up living and working where they attend college. Keep this in mind when making up your list of colleges. Also, a location fairly close to relatives or friends, so that you feel you have a “home base” not far from college, is particularly important for Foreign Service kids.

Write your admissions essays now. They’re not due until late fall, but the first semester of your senior year is going to be very, very busy. Go to http://www.commonapp.org and click on FAQ to find the essay questions for this year and the next on the Common Application. If the colleges you’re interested in don’t use the Common Application, write the essays for those colleges as soon as you have their application for the upcoming year.

Choose an impartial adult to look over your essays. Parents are-ahem-not always known for being objective, so choose a teacher, family friend, or anyone whose opinion you trust. The rule of thumb for essays is: show, don’t tell. Small, well written details of one experience say far more about your character than a sentence like, “I’m a really creative person.”

Compile your résumé if you haven’t already done so. This is a list of everything you’ve done that would be of interest to college admissions officers: your volunteer work at the hospital, your school newspaper position, your varsity letter in basketball and your summer waitressing job.

Ask for recommendations in the spring of junior year, not in the fall of senior year. Teachers are swamped with requests for letters of recommendation in the fall, and at that point, they’re rushed by a deadline. Asking them early gives them time to reflect and write wonderful things about you. Also, if you’ve recently moved, teachers at your last school are more likely to remember you the earlier you contact them! (Note: Be sure to send a handwritten thank-you note to anyone who helps you with your application.)

Take SATs and appropriate SAT II subject tests.

Take advantage of home leave by scheduling college tours and interviews, although interviews aren’t always required. Says Kathy McKenna, college counselor at St. John’s International School in Brussels and a former college admissions officer: “The interview is two-sided. It is the opportunity for students to find out why they should go to a particular college. Students are often concerned with which university is going to ‘want them,’ but it is equally important for them to recognize that they are the consumers here.”

Senior Year

This is it: application deadlines are looming. If you’ve already done a lot of the legwork before the fall, the process will be labor-intensive but not overwhelming. Guidance counselors, admissions officers, and students who’ve been there have three words of advice: Do not procrastinate!

During the Fall Semester:

If you haven’t already, finalize your list of colleges, mark their admissions deadlines on your calendar (usually around Jan. 1), and complete the applications. Remember that your deadlines for organizing all your materials must be much earlier in order to make their deadlines. Once your high school is closed for December break, it will be too late to contact teachers or guidance counselors for help.

If you clearly prefer one college over all others, consider early decision, but remember that you are required to attend if you are accepted. (Your application will be due earlier in the fall, usually by Nov. 1, and you should get your admission status by late December.) Your odds of being accepted via early decision are usually higher. Early action is another nonbinding option giving you more flexibility, but perhaps less of an edge.

If you will be applying for financial aid, mark each college’s financial aid application deadline in your calendar as well (most are after the New Year). Remind your parents to have last year’s tax documents ready for access-they will need them soon. Most colleges are need-blind, which means that your financial situation doesn’t affect your admission.

Register for and take SATs unless you scored extremely well on the SAT in the spring. Plan to take any needed SAT IIs as soon as possible.

Continue to enroll in the most challenging courses you can. Admissions officers will be able to tell how motivated you are by how you view senior year: as an opportunity to learn even more, or as your chance to slack off.

Submit your applications. Whether or not you submit an application electronically using the Internet, some parts of your application will still need to be sent the oldfashioned way. If possible, use an express delivery service; snail mail and fax are other options. If you choose not to use the Internet for any part of the application, fill out the application forms in black ink unless otherwise specified. Stay well ahead of deadlines, make copies of everything, and perhaps have a friend in the States on hand to help out if needed.

During the Spring Semester:

You’ve sent all your applications, but it’s not quite over yet. If you will be applying for financial aid, enjoy partying on New Year’s Eve, because in a few days, you and your parents will start tearing your collective hair out over finances. Although financial aid is too big a topic to treat in depth here, there are a few things you need to know:

Your parents will be doing their taxes early this year. In fact, prepare to be annoyed at how soon colleges want to see your family’s latest tax return. If you have not yet received all of your tax documents early enough to get your taxes done by the financial aid deadlines, you can usually send last year’s tax return as a stopgap. Check with each college for more information.

You will become intimately involved with at least one Web site that requires reams of information from you, as well as lots of red tape in processing the application online. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid and/or the College Scholarship Service Profile are forms required by most colleges’ financial aid offices. During the process of filling these out online, keep all blunt instruments away from the general area of the computer.

Now sit back . if you can. Once the financial aid applications are finished, the waiting game begins. Some days you’ll be anxious, other days philosophical. There may be surprise, disappointment, joy or all three around April 1, the day that most colleges mail or e-mail their acceptance and rejection letters.

The main thing to keep in mind is that things usually turn out for the best, and that there is a college somewhere for you no matter what your high school experience or class rank is. “There are all these wonderful schools out there,” says ISB’s Mary Ellen Cochran, “but so many kids apply to the same 50 colleges, which, of course, makes it much harder to get in. Remember that there are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States.”

And remember, too, that your Foreign Service experiences, as challenging as they may have been at times, will help you not only in getting into college, but throughout your entire life. “The American student who has lived overseas is a Third Culture Kid who enhances our residence halls and our classrooms,” says Mary Karen Vellines of Hamilton College . “They bring an American passport, but an international perspective.”

Should We Hire a College Admissions Counselor?

If you lack a guidance department or if you’re home-schooling, consider hiring a college admissions consultant. “I do think home-schooled students would benefit from hiring a college admissions consultant,” stresses Judy Frohlich, partner of College Counseling Consultants, based in the Chicago area (cccns@ameritech.net). “The presentation of their credentials in their application is even more important than students in a traditional school setting because the means of comparison with other students is much more challenging.”

In fact, as Rebecca Grappo, education and youth officer for the State Department’s Family Liaison Office, points out, using a private educational consultant can have many benefits. “A good consultant is extremely knowledgeable about various programs and offerings available at colleges and universities around the country, as well as the college application process,” says Grappo.

“These professionals pride themselves on getting to know a student’s abilities, aspirations and personality well so that they can advise a family on appropriate options that fit the needs of the individual student,” Grappo adds. “They can also spot unforeseen pitfalls that can save time and money in the end.”

Frohlich and her partner charge $2,250 for a two-year package (unlimited assistance beginning junior year and going through the completion of the admissions process at the end of senior year), but a similar package can run as high as $30,000 with well-known New York firms. “Usually consultants are hired on a retainer rather than an hourly basis,” says Frohlich. “We sometimes do charge on an hourly basis when people just need a little bit of help here and there.”

Although she prefers to meet at least initially in person, Frohlich believes that “counseling could be done purely through e-mail if the student is a good communicator and is motivated. Problems might arise in Internet counseling when an unmotivated student is resistant to the process.”

How Do I Know What College Is Best For Me?

“Do a self-assessment,” advises Mary Karen Vellines, senior associate dean of admissions at Hamilton College. “Figure out how you learn best. Do you want to be anonymous in class or do you learn best in small, seminar classes? Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Do you want to be able to participate in theater and music without majoring in these areas? Do you want to be a part of a community or a big city?”

Just because a college has a prestigious name doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right place for you. “I tell students that it’s like shoes: if everyone wants to wear Nike, but Adidas fits you better, get the Adidas,” says Kathy McKenna of St. John’s International School .

Many counselors believe that American kids who are used to an international school need to find a college environment where a premium is placed on diversity. “I tell the students that they may be more comfortable in universities that have a strong international, racial and ethnic mix if they’ve been abroad for any appreciable amount of time,” advises Tom Smith, college counselor at the International School of Brussels.

Ultimately, students will probably choose a place where they feel they “fit.” Yet in their quest for the perfect school, Vellines reminds students to “keep in mind that there is no one right college for anyone. College is only as good as your willingness to get involved and invest yourself.”

Web Sites

http://www.collegeboard.com (register here to take PSAT, SAT, and SAT II tests)

http://www.commonapp.org (click here to fill out and submit the Common Application)

http://www.fafsa.ed.gov (most colleges will require you to apply for financial aid using this site)

http://profileonline.collegeboard.com/index.jsp (many will also want you to use this site)

http://www.fastweb.com (register here to get scholarship alerts via e-mail)

http://www.kaplan.com (helpful e-mail alerts for parents and students)

http://www.afsa.org/scholar/index.cfm (AFSA scholarship information)

http://www.aafsw.org/awards-scholarships (AAFSW scholarship information)

http://www.nacac.com National Association for College Admission Counseling

http://www.educationalconsulting.org Independent Educational Consultants Association

Books

Your purchases through the Amazon links on this site earn AAFSW a commission to help fund www.aafsw.org along with other AAFSW activities and services. We appreciate your support!

Best 357 Colleges, 2005 Edition (Best Colleges), by Robert Franek et. al. ( Princeton Review, 2004)

Unofficial, Unbiased Guide to the 331 Most Interesting Colleges 2005, by Kaplan (Kaplan, 2004)

A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges, by Michele A. Hernández (Warner Books, 1999)

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg (Penguin Books, 2003)

The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2005 (31st Edition), by Yale Daily News (St. Martin’s Griffin , 2004)

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2005, by Edward Fiske (Sourcebooks, 2004)

How to Go to College (Almost) for Free, by Ben Kaplan (Harper Resource, 2002)

Get Into Any College: Secrets of Harvard Students, by Gen and Kelly Tanabe (Supercollege LLC, 2001)

Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You, by Jay Mathews (Three Rivers Press, 2003)

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even If You’re Not a Straight-A Student, by Loren Pope (Penguin, 2000)

The Ultimate College Survival Guide, by Janet Farrar Worthington, Ronald Farrar (Peterson’s Guides, 1998)

Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years (fourth edition), by Karen Levin Coburn, Madge Lawrence Treeger (Perennial, 2003)

Magazines

Newsweek puts out an annual issue called “America ‘s Hottest Colleges,” and U.S. News & World Report publishes an annual ranking of the most selective colleges and universities.

Francesca Kelly coaches students on their college application essays at essayadvantage.net.

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